Beware of What Is Touted as New
"We need a new government for a new century," proclaimed President Clinton, just minutes after taking an oath in which he solemnly swore that he "will, to the best of [his] Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." The people of this country have become accustomed to Mr. Clinton's frequent shifts from position to position, but this one happened in a flash and it goes to the very existence of America as we know it. A gigantic wave of protest should have swept through the land. Yet not a single voice was raised.
How did we get here?
Years of debate about big versus small government must have produced in us some Pavlovian reflex, that's how. Every time someone says "government," we think "size." But the word "new" has nothing whatever to do with size. It has everything to do with replacement of the established, the existing. That, certainly, was the meaning of the phrase when it first appeared in the American vocabulary. Thomas Jefferson introduced it in 1776, as the rationale for the Declaration of Independence.
"...it is the Right of the People," the Declaration asserts, "...to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness." The purpose of the Declaration of Independence was indeed to break with the existing. We have reason to assume that, in his Inaugural Address, President Clinton put us on notice with similar intent. Here is why.
In his speech, Mr. Clinton calls for a government which will "give us the tools to solve our problems." He wants government to "give all Americans an opportunity." Above all, he wants government to "give Americans the power to make a real difference in their everyday lives." Our current form of government is embodied in the Constitution of the United States. Unlike Mr. Clinton's "new government," it was not designed to give anything to the people.
Nature and Nature's Creator give us the tools to solve our problems. No provision in the Constitution calls upon government to dispense opportunity, for opportunity derives from a concept called the Rule of Law. And how could government give power when, in our Republic, government is merely the expression and instrument of the people's power?
Some of us might speculate that the phrases quoted from Mr. Clinton's speech represent mere demagoguery, rather than the announcement of a program. I believe such an interpretation to be unrealistic. This President and his team have furnished ample evidence of their belief that the constitutional provisions of 1787 are no longer adequate for our time. "He doesn't really mean that" could prove a costly wave of the hand.
Another reason to assume the President means what he says on this occasion is his - and Mrs. Clinton's - tendency to lecture the people of this country from a position of higher wisdom. Whereas placing oneself above the people stops short of violating the letter of the Constitution, such attitude shows little respect for its spirit. And attitudes determine actions.
For decades, we have acquiesced in the growing distance between ourselves and America's founding principles. For decades, we have acquiesced in the increasing usurpation of powers by both the Judiciary and Executive branches. The President who called for a "new government" had just won his last-ever election campaign. If he continues to perceive his opposition as ineffectual, he may attempt a wholesale revision of constitutional authority. In some ways, this would only confirm de jure that which has been with us for some time de facto. All the more reason for paying attention.
Mr. Clinton wasted no time to begin construction of a super majority by appointing a Republican Secretary of Defense, decorating Senator Robert Dole and, more significantly, announcing the so-called "Voluntarism" project for which he has surrounded himself with former Republican presidents George Bush and Gerald Ford, as well as Colin Powell and Mrs. Nancy Reagan. All that will complicate resistance to his future designs. And if Mr. Clinton succeeds in persuading the majority about the need for constitutional change, we shall indeed have a new government. That is the law - at least the old law. In an historic twist of fate, our old law would provide the authority to be voted out of existence and replaced by a new law which, to be sure, will not permit such liberties. But there is nothing the rest of us can do if we find ourselves in the minority.
There is, however, a great deal we can do if those of us who adhere to the founding principles and the founding documents are still a majority. We have to take stock and reacquaint ourselves with those principles. We have to remind ourselves that the Constitution is not a smorgasbord from which to pick our snack of the day, but an integrated whole. We had better understand that, like a seam, it will unravel in time if we start pulling out threads. We ought to resolve that the basics remain non-negotiable and non-separable.
Above all, we should free ourselves of the debate about the size of government, and focus on the appropriate functions of government. Such an approach will yield the appropriate size and will persuade most people of common sense that the last thing this country needs is a new government.